History can be fun and eye-opening when it's re-enacted with skill and enthusiasm, reports Su Clark
A quick chat with the Abbess of Shaftsbury at the Tower of London, and you soon find out she knows her stuff. As does Talbot Edwards, keeper of the crown in the 1660s. They fill you in on the politics of their day, wonder at your clothes, and gossip about their neighbours. Dressed authentically, they talk as if trapped in a time-warp. It's the character you're conversing with, not the player. It makes history fun and real - at least, that's the plan.
"To trick into learning with a laugh, that's our motto," says Mark Wallis, the founder of Past Pleasures, a historical interpretation company that has grown in size and reputation since its formation in 1987. Mr Wallis now employs around 15 "interpreters", with more on call for special events. Each one needs to be able to talk like an expert about the relevant period, so several of Mr Wallis's crew are former teachers.
"I usually ask for graduates who love history, and that attracts teachers," says Mr Wallis. "And all applicants have to write a piece about their favourite part of history."
Former teacher David Millinship turns himself into historical characters as an occasional diversion since he took early retirement from Nottingham city council in 1990.
And Rosanna Summers, who answered an advertisement in The Stage, has found recreating the past is almost a full-time occupation. She began in 1991 while still working part-time for Merton council as a supply teacher. Now she oversees Past Pleasures' schools projects.
"I understand the curriculum and know how to get information over to children, and I have practical experience of organising pupils," says Ms Summers. The schools projects consist of groups going to a historical site and having sessions with the interpreters or, more cost-effective, an interpreter going to the school and holding seminars with each class.
"I go to schools as Lady Bryan, who was tutor to Edward VI. I show the children what it was like to be young in Tudor times and how children were taught to behave. We do role-playing and learn a dance from the time," says Ms Summers. "The children get to look at the historical characters from a Tudor perspective, rather than a 21st-century one."
Other characters include a Victorian teacher, a Roman, a Greek and an Egyptian. All fit in with key stage 2. Both Mr Millinship and Ms Summers have extensive knowledge of history and dramatic role-play through teaching, and they also do extensive research for each period.
"You get asked all sorts of questions," adds Mr Millinship. "For example, at the Tower of London there's a line of king's heads with their dates underneath and some American tourists asked if these were their phone numbers."
The players help one another, recommending different sources and often writing papers which are given to all involved. The costumes are researched to ensure the are fully authentic. Mr Wallis does much of this with his wife, Stephanie, who like him is a costume designer.
"I got into this because I wasn't very confident about costume designing after graduating from college, so I applied to do an MA in theatrical history in the States," says Mr Wallis.
Following his MA, he went on to work at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, one of America's oldest living museums. It was here that he began to understand the subtleties of using character and clothes to make history real. In 1987, he made his way back to Britain.
Past Pleasures has grown since then. It now has contracts with the Tower of London, the Dome, the Public Record Office, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Lambeth Palace. At the Dome, 10 players perform four centuries of British history, from the Normans, to the Victorians. And at the Tower of London, eight interpreters describe life in the Medieval Palace.
"We do something special at the Tower during the half-term holidays," says Tristan Langlos, another interpreter. "In previous holidays we have done stories on Anne Boleyn, Richard III and the Princes, and scenes from Shakespeare that take place at the Tower."
This half-term the group will enact the story of Colonel Blood, who almost managed to steal the British crown jewels. He was caught just outside the gate. "I am playing an ageing character called Talbot Edwards," says Mr Millinship.
"He was the keeper of the crown and Colonel Blood conned him by posing as a clergyman with a rich nephew who was interested in marrying Edwards's daughter."
Visitors to the Tower next week will be able to watch Blood in action. A Blue Peter camera crew will be on hand, too.
Some of Past Pleasures' other interpretations include a project in the costume department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a character is dressed by her maids. And twice a year at Stonehenge, two members of the group play the 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey and a companion.
Later this year, the group has been hired for the Portsmouth Christmas Festival (November 30 - December 3), to lead a street party portraying Victorian and Tudor characters.
The letters Past Pleasures receives from schoolchildren give an insight into how real the characters become to pupils. Mr Wallis had one letter from a child following a visit he made to a school as a Tudor sailor. The letter said "Thank you for coming down from heaven to see us."
"This is how history is meant to be taught," says Ms Summers. "It gives children an opportunity to understand what life was really like for people of their age in these different times. It's like I have all the best bits of teaching but none of the frustrations."
Forthcoming events at the Tower of London include Colonel Blood (October 21-29), Guy Fawkes Plots! (November 4 and 5), Medieval Christmas (December 27-31) and Married to the Tower (Weekends in November and December). Tel: 01483 450914.